My First Conference Talk Experience

by Shirley Li

One day early this fall, a poster outside my office caught my eye. It was for the Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) meeting hosted by American Physical Society (APS) this year at Newport Beach, CA. At that time, I had been working on studying the backgrounds in the Super-Kamiokande detector for several months. Super-Kamiokande is a neutrino detector in Japan. It catches neutrinos, which is a type of very light elementary particle, from the Sun and atmosphere, so that we can study their properties. However, the detector also catches some other particles from the atmosphere and they are called backgrounds. My work is to study how to distinguish between neutrinos and other particles in the detector. Since my project was related to nuclear physics, I thought it would be really exciting to attend the meeting. I would get to attend lots of talks on current nuclear physics research and possibly give a talk on my own work! After talking to my advisor and getting encouragement from him, I decided to submit a brief summary of my work (an abstract) to the meeting committee.

Unfortunately, it was only a couple of days away from the abstract deadline, so I had to work it out over a weekend. Since I did not yet have a clear approach to my problem, all I could write was a description of my problem. The abstract was only supposed to be a few sentences, thus, how to make everything clear and logically connected from general interest to one specific project was the key challenge. After several revisions from my advisor, both about physics concepts and about wording, my abstract was ready. Almost a month after I sent out my abstract, I got reply from the committee saying that my abstract was accepted!

I spent the next two months working on rapidly advancing my project. I realized that signing up for the conference was definitely the right thing to do because I felt this constant pressure to get some results before the conference. Fortunately by the time I wanted to start making my slides, I just had enough material to talk about.

The first thing that I learned about writing a talk was the structure of a talk, starting from an introduction of the topic, including the relevant physics concepts, history of the field, and current status. Next I had to explain the importance of my specific project, details of the work that I did, and finally the most important part: the results. I started out by writing one topic sentence for each slide. Then, my advisor gave me suggestions on better ways to organize the topics. After fixing the theme of each slide, I added bullet points, key words and again got advice from my advisor on how to make thing even more clear. I started making the slides two weeks before the meeting, but it was not until the night before I left for the meeting that I finished.

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An introductory slide from my talk showing why I focus on one specific type of background in Super-Kamiokande. 

Even though I was worried about my talk, I was still so excited when I got to the meeting. The environment was very impressive. At any given time, there were about six or seven 10-minute-talks going on and you can go to whichever one looks interesting. Outside the conference rooms, people were talking about their work and all the physicists talk with great passion. Everyone was very friendly. It was relaxing at the same time. Since I have not been working in the field for a long time, there was not much that I can completely understand, but I tried to go to talks non-stop because everything just seemed so interesting. I wished that I could learn those physics concepts and understand others’ work right away to join all the fun conversations!

I managed to find some time to practice my talk during the conference. I realized that as long as I thought about the audience, I would get incredibly nervous and distracted from the material. So, I tried to focus on memorizing what I wanted to say and not think about anything else. After almost being able to recite my talk from memory, I started again to pretend to talk to an audience. Even though I still got nervous, I was able to continue the presentation because it came out more naturally. I ended up practicing it more than twenty times during two days. Eventually I was comfortable enough that I didn’t have to think about what I was going to say.

My talk was on the third day of the conference, and it was the last one in my session. There were about forty people in the room throughout my session, mostly professors and some post-docs and graduate students. Finally it was my turn! I believed I was fully prepared. Nevertheless, I still felt really nervous at the beginning, but as it continued, I focused on my voice, my gestures and poise and this calmed me down. During the talk, some of the audience members were smiling and nodding along. That gave me so much confidence. In the end I even got several questions! This  means the audience understood the bulk of the presentation and were interested in knowing more.

Attending the conference was such a valuable experience for me. It forced me to read through lots of scientific research articles, and to think about the meaning of my project and how it connects to others’ work. It helped me understand better how to convey my ideas and thoughts, and how to make things clear and interesting at the same time.  It also made me want to learn so much more so I can participate in more exciting discussions next time. I’m looking forward to my next conference talk. I’m sure I will do an even better job!

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About Shirley Lshirley.lii

I’m from Xinjiang, China. I went to Peking University majoring math as an undergraduate student. After three years, I transferred to the Ohio State University switching to a physics major. My undergrad research was in nuclear theory. I stayed here for graduate school and I am currently working in astrophysics.

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